Republicans in Wisconsin are engaged in an all-out assault on the state’s election system, building off their attempts to challenge the results of the 2020 presidential race by pressing to give themselves full control over voting in the state.
The Republican effort — broader and more forceful than that in any other state where allies of former President Donald Trump are trying to overhaul elections — takes direct aim at the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission, an agency Republicans created half a decade ago that has been under attack since the chaotic aftermath of last year’s election.
The onslaught picked up late last month after a long-awaited report on the 2020 results that was ordered by Republican state legislators found no evidence of fraud but made dozens of suggestions for the election commission and the GOP-led Legislature, fueling Republican demands for more control of elections.
Then the Trump-aligned sheriff of Racine County, the state’s fifth most populous county, recommended felony charges against five of the six members of the election commission for guidance they had given to municipal clerks early in the pandemic. The Republican majority leader of the state Senate later seemed to give a green light to that proposal, saying that “prosecutors around the state” should determine whether to bring charges.
And last week, Sen. Ron Johnson, a Republican, said that GOP state lawmakers should unilaterally assert control of federal elections, claiming that they had the authority to do so even if Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, stood in their way — an extraordinary legal argument debunked by a 1932 Supreme Court decision and a 1964 ruling from the Wisconsin Supreme Court. His suggestion was nonetheless echoed by Michael Gableman, a conservative former state Supreme Court justice who is conducting the Legislature’s election inquiry.
Republican control of Wisconsin elections is necessary, Johnson said in an interview Wednesday, because he believes Democrats cheat.
“Do I expect Democrats to follow the rules?” said the senator, who over the past year has promoted fringe theories on topics like the Capitol riot and COVID vaccines. “Unfortunately, I probably don’t expect them to follow the rules. And other people don’t either, and that’s the problem.”
The uproar over election administration in Wisconsin — where the past two presidential contests have been decided by fewer than 23,000 votes each — is heightened by the state’s deep divisions and its pivotal place in American politics.
Some top Republican officials in Wisconsin privately acknowledge that their colleagues are playing to the party’s base by calling for state election officials to be charged with felonies or for their authority to be usurped by lawmakers.
Adding to the uncertainty, Johnson’s proposal has not yet been written into legislation in Madison. Evers has vowed to stop it.
“The outrageous statements and ideas Wisconsin Republicans have embraced aren’t about making our elections stronger, they’re about making it more difficult for people to participate in the democratic process,” Evers said Thursday. The GOP’s election proposals, he added, “are nothing more than a partisan power grab.”
Yet there is no guarantee that the Republican push will fall short legally or politically. The party’s lawmakers in other states have made similar moves to gain more control over election apparatus. And since the GOP won control of the Wisconsin Legislature in 2010, the state has served as an incubator for conservative ideas exported to other places.
“In Wisconsin we’re heading toward a showdown over the meaning of the clause that says state legislatures should set the time, manner and place of elections,” said Kevin J. Kennedy, who spent 34 years as Wisconsin’s chief election officer before Republicans eliminated his agency and replaced it with the elections commission in 2016. “If not in Wisconsin, in some other state they’re going to push this and try to get a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on this.”
Next year, Wisconsin will host critical elections for Johnson’s Senate seat and for statewide offices, including the governor. Rebecca Kleefisch, the leading Republican in the race to challenge Evers, is running on a platform of eliminating the state election commission. (On Monday, she filed a lawsuit against the agency asking the Wisconsin Supreme Court to declare that the commission’s guidance violates state law.)
The Republican anger at the Wisconsin Elections Commission, a body of three Democrats and three Republicans that GOP lawmakers created in part to eliminate the investigatory powers of its predecessor agency, comes nearly 20 months after commissioners issued guidance to local election clerks on how to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.
Republicans have seized in particular on a March 2020 commission vote lifting a rule that required special voting deputies — trained and dispatched by municipal clerks’ offices — to visit nursing homes twice before issuing absentee ballots to residents. The special voting deputies, like most other visitors, were barred from entering nursing homes early in the pandemic, and the commission reasoned that there was not enough time before the April primary election to require them to be turned away before mailing absentee ballots.
The vote was relatively uncontroversial at the time: No lawsuits from Republicans or anyone else challenged the guidance. The procedure remained in place for the general election in November.